Appalachia Civil War Letters

Survival Lessons From The Civil War

Today’s guestpost was written by Leon Pantenburg, who blogs at Survival Common Sense.

I ordered by inter-library loan a book named “Three Years with the 92nd Illinois: The Civil War Diary of John M. King.”

My great-great-grandfather, Pvt James Hallowell, Company A, 92nd Illinois Infantry, is buried in Ruthven, Iowa.

My great-great-grandfather, Private James Hallowell, had served with the 92nd, and was invalided out after being wounded at Chickamauga. I  love reading diaries of historical events and happenings, anyway, and to find a record that might have included mention of my grandfather was incredible.

Sometimes, my dual passions of research and wilderness survival skills come together, and I experience a resounding “AH-HAH!” moment.

That’s what happened with King’s book. King provides details of camp life, and campaigning I had not been aware of. In particular, details of an ordinary soldier’s day-to-day life are rare.

Here are some survival skills I learned from the diary.

Cast iron Dutch ovens can be an important part of preparing food outdoors.

“When the army was not too far from the base of supplies, we could get some flour instead of hard tack. Then the soldiers would go to the negro cabins and dwelling houses and unceremoniously borrow or carry away these bake ovens. One could bake anything in them, in the house or out of doors, rain or sunshine, wherever hot embers could be obtained. Soldiers could get green apples, slice them into thin pieces, roll out crusts made from the flour, lay in the sliced apples and cover with another crust….”

Cooking kits don’t need to be elaborate.

“The cooking outfit for two men consisted of one very light-handled sheet from a frying pan, one tin coffee pot with the handle melted off and wire bail attached through bayonet holes at the top, two tin cups, two tin plates and two forks. The coffee pot answers the triple purpose of boiling coffee, rice and sweet potatoes.”

On the march, King writes, each mess of three or four soldiers functioned smoothly. Each had a specific job related to getting the food prepared quickly.

“When the army camped for the night, one man of each squad went for fuel for the fire, the other for water. A fire was quickly built, the coffee boiler was placed upon the fire, the frying pan with slices of meat by its side, a rubber blanket was spread near the fire with (the cooking gear) opened and supper was ready. In half an hour after camping, a whole army of thousands…was eating all divided into groups of twos, threes and fours.”

Improvise lighting:

King and his comrades were in winter camp, where the days were short, and lighting after dark was non-existent. Here’s what he did.

“Many of the men…were great readers, but there were two great obstacles in the way. First, it was  difficult to get a great deal of matter to read, and second, it was difficult to get proper lighting for the evening. We had some candles furnished us, but not near enough…Necessity is the mother of invention, and I remembered what I had seen my mother do during the poverty-stricken times of an early day in Illinois. I attended to frying the meat, and at each frying I poured a portion of the clear fat into an empty oyster can. From this fat, I made what the boys called a “betty.” I tore a piece of cotton lining from my coat, twisted it into a wick and buried it in the lard, one end projecting above the surface. This made a fair light, but not brilliant.”

Make a shelter:

The 92nd spent part of the winter of 1864 campaigning in and around Pulaski, Tenn. On Jan. 10, temperatures plummeted to minus eight degrees below zero. The  soldiers were dressed “in clothing prepared for a warm climate.” Hill and his buddies improvised shelters using whatever materials they could find.

“My bunkmate and myself went out into a cornfield and loaded our horses with corn fodder (stalks). We took this corn fodder and carefully packed it in our tent (an open-ended pup tent shaped structure with no floor) and made our bed on top. Only one blanket was necessary for the bottom sheet and the rest we had over us. We buttoned our overcoats together and made a blanket cover of them also. We slept with all our clothing on except for our hats. We covered up our heads and lay “spoon fashion.” We each kept open a little breathe hole to get air…after a few moments we were as warm as two kittens in the chimney corner; and to tell the truth, I do not know that I ever slept warmer at home.”

“Self preservation is the first great law of nature, and I determined to preserve No. 1 to the best of my ability. There was no mother to care for me now.”

It doesn’t matter what you have to work with, or when. The best  tool is your survival mindset.


I hope you enjoyed Leon’s post. Be sure to jump over to his blog Survival Common Sense  and check it out.




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  • Reply
    Maxine Appleby
    February 23, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    Great article. However, as I read I could not but think sadly about the boys in the Confederate units who had no shoes, warm clothing, utensils of any kind and nearly no food. They would have thought themselves lucky to have a third of what the 92nd Illinois had. Such a cruel war, such a sad time in our history- for all who fought and for all who suffered at home…

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    April 24, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    I remember at least one very cold Northern winter night all six of us children were piled in one bed sandwiched between two feather ticks – the four little girls across the top by the pillows, the two little boys laying across the bottom at our feet, snug as bugs in rugs once the body heat built up between the ticks. (Don’t know why we had no heat that time. We had a good old coal furnace. Maybe we ran out of coal. Can’t recall.)
    Interesting learning about how to survive with corn shucks for warmth and padding, and to make a rude candle out of rendered animal grease and a twist of fabric. I understand surviving in hard times, but sad they took iron skillets and dutch ovens from poor families that probably had little hope of replacing what was taken. Wonder what those families cooked their food in after that.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    April 23, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    I’ve slept in barns, cribs, caves and on the ground in the past. Give me a soft warm bed now.

  • Reply
    April 23, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing this information. I especially liked how pies were made.

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    April 23, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    Tipper,Sure did enjoyed Leon’s story. I still have mother old dutch ovens and cast iron pans.(I still cook in them for the iron they release)
    Mother taught us if we were every out for survival,first rule of thumb kept your wits about you, common sense will get you through.She taught us herbs etc and wild greens to eat. Those reared on farms have a survival seems like built within and seem to learn more than any book can teach them. I loved the Era of the civil war but the war itself was the bloodiest in history. I do love to write about the Civil War and the people hardships of adversities survivals. Could we improvise today?

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    April 23, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    I wish he had stated what meat they ate…I’ll bet it was ‘rancid as the dickens’…or that old stinky country ham…ewwww…Sorry, but I don’t like that salted down near to rotten country ham…LOL I would have thunk that they would’ve thrown the ‘sweet taters’ in the edge of the hot coals to bake, whilst the coffee was biling! Wonder if they ever picked ‘polk sallet’, morels or creases in the spring…They sure could have used those vitamins….
    Thanks Tipper,
    and Leon…

  • Reply
    April 23, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Wow,, that was interesting..

  • Reply
    April 23, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Thank you Tipper and Leon,that was a great read.God Bless

  • Reply
    April 23, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    I enjoyed Leon’s post on survival
    during that tragic war. And I
    especially liked the story of
    gathering corn fodder as the warmth for sleeping. Both sides robbed from the ordinary folks for their own survival and their cause.
    Looking forward to Saturday…Ken

  • Reply
    April 23, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Great post, learned alot. Of course, you know I loved reading the comments about Dutch ovens!

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